A time for gifts

After the recent furore over the NSPCC’s spending of its annual budget, the ways in which charities dispense of their income is coming under the media spotlight.

Madonna, The Spice Girls, Alan Shearer, Melinda Messenger and the Duke of York are no strangers to controversy. But the NSPCC’s Full Stop campaign caused a bigger scandal last week than any of the celebrities that front it.

To the year ending March 31 2000, the NSPCC spent £43m of its £75m budget on fundraising, publicity, campaigning, public education, support and administration. It spent the remaining £32m on local services, the Child Protection Helpline and National Child Protection training.

The fact that over 50 per cent of the NSPCC’s budget has been dedicated to areas such as advertising, instead of direct services for children and families, raised big issues for the charity sector.

The NSPCC’s Royal Charter says publicity and educational work to make the society’s objectives known must be undertaken to encourage the public to report cases of children in need of protection.

Damage limitations

The following furore forced the NSPCC into a damage limitation exercise; attacking the media criticism as “a travesty” and “distorted”; issuing a statement to “set the record straight” and e-mailing its supporters to reassure them of its “essential work”.

The statement says: “The NSPCC’s child protection teams and services received 8,912 requests for help last year – an increase of 14 per cent on the previous year. Through NSPCC, public awareness campaigns and the charity’s essential work in lobbying for changes to legislation or policy the NSPCC has helped to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands more.

“The NSPCC’s work is diverse and its methods of operation many, but its single aim has not changed since 1884 – to prevent cruelty to children.”

Controversy surrounds what constitutes “helping children”. The NSPCC exists to prevent children from suffering significant harm as a result of cruelty, helps children who have suffered cruelty to overcome its effects and aims to protect children from further harm.

The NSPCC Full Stop campaign comprises an advertising campaign aimed at ending cruelty to children within a generation, and an appeal to raise £250m – the largest charitable appeal ever in the UK – in order to fund the expansion of the society’s activities over the next decade. To date, it has raised £80m.

The NSPCC argues that promoting a change in attitude and behaviour towards children, influencing strategic thinking and policy, and providing leadership to end child cruelty helps children as much as direct services do.

But some observers in the media say the high profile Full Stop campaign has eaten up a budget which could be better spent on services. About £18m has been spent on the Saatchi & Saatchi campaign since its March 1999 launch, and a total of £25m has been earmarked to be spent on it over the course of five years.

Accusations that the campaign’s aims may not be achievable and that it is more of a brand-building exercise have also been levelled at the society.

The headlines attacking the charity’s campaign spend could not only damage the NSPCC’s reputation and donations, but could also have a knock-on effect for other charities. Whether the criticism is justified or not, the public’s perception that charities “waste” money is hard to shift once it has stuck.

Donor backlash

It may not only be a problem for the NSPCC, but other children’s charities, such as Barnardo’s and the National Children’s Home, could suffer as well. Smaller, less well-known, charities, could be most financially vulnerable if there is a backlash from donors.

In the short-term, however, it is as difficult to tell if the public is concerned over charity spending levels, as it is to discover whether a call to stop child cruelty is having any effect on actual levels of abuse.

The NSPCC has been transparent in publishing the accounts in its annual report. It set out the aims of the Full Stop campaign and appeal clearly at launch. So does public consternation develop because there is a gulf between what the general public perceive charities to do and what they actually do?

Some observers say the public gives money to charity believing it will go directly to help the charity’s charges. But if a large swathe of the cash goes towards campaigning or administration, rather than services, can the public still be satisfied its money had been put to good use?

One of the main duties of the government-run Charity Commission exists to ensure that the public’s trust in charities continues to be justified.

Charity Commission spokesman Alex Mackay says the body monitors charities’ accounts. Contact will be made with a charity if administration costs go above a certain level to ask why and to make sure there has been no foul play.

Mackay says there is no suggestion the NSPCC has done anything wrong. John Stoker, chief charity commissioner at the Charity Commission, says: “We have no current regulatory concerns with the charity’s level of spending on advertising, publicity, promotional work or administration.”

In the year to March 31 2000, the NSPCC spent £14m on fundraising and publicity and £8.3m on support and administration, whereas the year before it spent £11.4m on fundraising and publicity and £6.2m support and administration.

“This will not necessarily undermine public confidence in charities. The basic premise on how charities account for their actions is transparency and the NSPCC’s transparency has led to this current debate,” says Mackay.

“But the issue [of rising administrative costs] is potentially a concern. Charities can’t waste money, but it is up their trustees to decide how to use money effectively.”

There are no set ratios of spending on administration versus direct services as every charity has different strategies and aims. The Samaritans, for example, spends all its money on staff, offices and telephones in order to be able to deliver its service.

Adopting new attitudes

Mackay says best practice centres on transparency and good communication. He reckons only time will tell if the NSPCC’s strategy has been effective.

The NSPCC believes it has communicated what the Full Stop campaign is about effectively. As a spokeswoman says, donors are “absolutely 100 per cent supporting us”. But the charity is obviously keen to correct what its sees as “inaccurate reporting”.

The effectiveness of the Full Stop campaign, she says, can already be proved in the 600,000 people who have pledged to end cruelty to children; the 150,000 new campaigners who have joined the organisation; and the increase of importance of child protection as an issue in NSPCC research from 16 per cent of people to 24 per cent.

These figures provide some proof that the campaign has been noticed, but does not prove that even one child has been spared abuse or neglect. The cultural change in attitudes towards children that the NSPCC is aiming for will take, it believes, at least ten years.

Other children’s charities have responded to the furore over the NSPCC’s spending by re-issuing statements of their accounts.

NCH chief executive Deryk Mead says: “It is important that all charities are open and transparent about how they spend their money so they can retain the public’s confidence. Each charity has to decide how to allocate its resources in order that it best achieves its purpose.”

Where does it all go?

NCH spent £83.7m on children’s services last year and £10m on operating costs, of which £8.8m was spent on fundraising and publicity.

Mead says it is not NCH’s place to comment on the NSPCC’s accounts but says the NSPCC “has done much to raise awareness about child abuse in the UK”. But at the same time Mead emphasises NCH spend on services.

“When NCH was set up in 1869 our founder wanted to spend as much as possible on our children’s services and we have continued in that spirit. The NSPCC has grown in a different way,” says Mead.

Barnardo’s spent nine per cent – £10.7m – of its total £119m expenditure on fundraising and publicity over the year to 31 March 2000.

A spokesman for Barnardo’s says: “If we want to protect our services we have to spend money on explaining who we are. But it’s a question of whether the public thinks one organisation spends too much, or just one charity.”

But the campaigning message put across by Full Stop is more akin to a public service message which in other areas is broadcast by the Government. The NSPCC spokeswoman says: “In an ideal world, the Government would put this message across and support all the services.

But then, of course, in an ideal world, charities wouldn’t need to exist at all.”

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